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nick cullather

BOOK REVIEW Heres the Beef: Religion, Culture, and Ngo Dinh Diem
Seth Jacobs. Americas Miracle Man in Vietnam: Ngo Dinh Diem, Religion, Race, and U.S. Intervention in Southeast Asia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004. x + 351 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $79.95 (hardcover), $22.95 (paper).

An editorial cartoon drawn by Karl Hubenthal for the Hearst newspapers in November 1963 depicted President John F. Kennedy as a mischievous boy who has just tipped over a statue labeled Diem Regime. The cartoonideal for PowerPoint lectures on the Vietnam Warshows the notch in the Cold War consensus that would soon widen into the credibility gap. Hubenthals caption cut through ofcial obfuscation around the overthrow and assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem, exposing the supposedly covert hand of U.S. policy. Just leaned on it a little, the impish JFK shrugs. The image also contains a revealing irony: the shattered gure appears to be Buddhist, or possibly Hindu, but as every regular reader of Time, Readers Digest, or Tom Dooleys bestselling novels, as well as viewers of Bishop Fulton Sheens top-ranked television show knew, Diem was Roman Catholic. His repudiation by the United States and especially by Kennedy, his coreligionist, required a change of sacerdotal imagery. Diem the crusader became, in death, an Oriental idol. Seth Jacobss study describes the mixture of religion and image making that produced Diem and his short-lived reputation as a Vietnamese Joan of Arc. Americans in the 1950s customarily read Cold War scenarios in religious terms. Church and synagogue attendance soared nationwide, a revival Jacobs calls the Third Great Awakening. Religious books and lms dominated popular culture, while mass-circulation religious newspapers and magazines, such as Commentary, America, and Christian Century, treated national issues from a denominational perspective. As in earlier awakenings, the spiritual movement spilled over into political life. Jacobs argues that Dwight Eisenhower, the rst president baptized in the White House, regarded faithnot democracy or capitalismas the heftiest ideological counterweight to communism. National security ofcials, most of them mainline Protestants, measured religions in much the same way they assessed governments, by their resources and vulnerabilities in meeting the Communist challenge. Jacobs is particularly critical of their failure to see possibilities for alliance with the syncretic sects ourishing in the Mekong
Diplomatic History, Vol. 30, No. 3 ( June 2006). 2006 The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). Published by Blackwell Publishing, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden, MA, 02148, USA and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK.

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Delta, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, which they disparaged as voodoo cults. Eisenhowers aides likewise dismissed Buddhism, Vietnams principal religion, as a passive, effeminate creed. Catholicism, by contrast, held an allure entirely out of proportion to its miniscule Vietnamese ock. The heroic resistance of East European clerics and the experience with Christian Democrats in Italy convinced policymakers that Catholics could be mobilized to defend their religion. When they asked the question once put derisively by StalinHow many divisions has the Pope? they imagined large, organized legions. Catholicism enjoyed so much inuence in the United States in the 1950s, Jacobs argues, less because of its electoral

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strength or its highly placed adherents than because of its image as a muscular, anti-Communist faith. Policymakers drew their impressions not from theologians or Orientalist scholars but from assumptions conveyed by mass culture. Echoing the analysis of Christina Klein and Jonathan Nashel, Jacobs traces the movement of ideas from Graham Greene, James Michener, and Rogers and Hammerstein into the discussions of the National Security Council. Policymakers would have been disturbed had they known more about Diems autocratic philosophy of personalism, borrowed from antimodern French moralists. Assumptions based on the familiar pastoral traditions of Italy, Boston, and Bing Crosby movies reassured them that Diem would favor a Tammany-style paternalism. In this context, warnings about the regimes nepotism and corruption simply conrmed that the program was on track. Michener and the State Departments most seasoned experts agreed that Asians knew nothing of democracy and wanted only strong leadership. Can we make a synthetic strong man of him? CIA director Walter Bedell Smith asked of Diem in 1954.1 That is precisely what they did, Jacobs conrms, fashioning an imaginary strong man out of bits of Chiang Kai-shek, Knute Rockne, and Yul Brynner. Jacobs lls Robert Buzzancos order for beef on the role of culture and religion in international affairs. In a challenge to culturalist approaches, Buzzanco asked six years ago in these pages how, in the nal analysis, does [religion] explain state action, which presumably is the basis of the study of foreign relations?2 Historians have been somewhat at a loss to explain state action in the selection of Diem to head the Saigon government improvised in the wake of the Geneva settlement. The reclusive, antidemocratic Diem, Frances Fitzgerald argues, was a curious candidate for the role of American protg.3 His religion, some claim, should have been an obvious disqualication. This devout Catholic who once wanted to be a priest, Neil Jamieson contends, was grotesquely miscast as leader of a Buddhist country.4 In fact, these and many other objectionssuch as his tendencies to resist advice and alienate supporters, the thinness of his support, and early indications of corruptionappeared repeatedly in high-level memos at a time when Diem was one among several candidates for leadership. What is striking in retrospect, George Herring writes, is the degree to which early on the scene estimates of the prime ministers leadership pointed directly toward the major problems that would develop later.5 The strength of those objections presents a historical problem, Kai Bird argues: Why did the Eisenhower administration gradually climb deeper into bed with

1. Quoted in Lloyd C. Gardner, Approaching Vietnam (New York, 1988), 315. 2. Robert Buzzanco, Wheres the Beef? Culture without Power in the Study of U.S. Foreign Relations, Diplomatic History 24, no. 4 (Fall 2000): 623. 3. Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake (Boston, 1972), 80. 4. Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley, CA, 1993), 236. 5. George C. Herring, Americas Longest War, 4th ed. (Boston, 2000), 60.

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the Diem regime in Saigon, even as its own intelligence estimates were warning that the regime had little political viability?6 Religion has not gured prominently in historians answers to this question. Characteristically, a recent, wide-ranging treatment of the Diem-Kennedy relationship by Howard Jones includes no index entry under Catholicism, and while many writers note the inuence of prominent Catholics such as Cardinal Spellman and Senators Mike Manseld and John F. Kennedy, it is not clear why John Foster Dulles was so easily swayed by outsiders and junior senators from the opposing party. Some analysts have seen the choice of Diem in spite of his religious afliation as evidence of the arrogance and miscalculation that lay behind U.S. actions. Edward G. Lansdale was so naive about the [religious] implications, Neil Sheehan argues, that he formed entire civic action teams of Northern Catholics to propagandize against the Viet Minh among the Delta peasants.7 What these interpretations do not explain is why U.S. arrogance and miscalculation redounded consistently to Diems advantage. Other interpretations have stressed the absence of substitutes for Diem and the legacy of McCarthyism, which made middle- and high-ranking ofcials reluctant to risk their political necks by advocating alternatives, but these explanations are likewise short on beef. As Jacobs shows, there was no scarcity of choices or of ofcials unafraid to put them forward. Prior to the sect crisis, removing Diem would have required only a telegram from the emperor, Bao Dai. The easiest replacements would have been General Nguyen Van Hinh, head of the army, and Phan Huy Quat, the defense minister, but U.S. envoy Lawton Collins, a Catholic, suggested other names as well while warning that just about any candidate would outlast Diem. Diems survival has often been seen as hanging on a bureaucratic duel between Collins and Lansdale (also a Catholic), but Jacobs explains that Collins undercut his own recommendations by acknowledging Diems spiritual qualities presented an alternative to the insidious religion of communism (p. 194). Meanwhile in the same week, Time trumpeted Diem as Vietnams salvation and Life reminded policymakers that Buddhist passivity could be helpful to communism (p. 190). Dulles went as far as drafting an order recommending Diems removal, but then demurred because of his lingering condence in Diems high moral character (p. 207). The links between American Catholicism and Cold War politics have come under scholarly scrutiny in recent years, and Jacobs mines this new eld of research. Much of the material on the Vietnam Lobby and Thomas Dooley, the jungle doctor and novelist, will be familiar to readers of James T. Fishers excellent biography. Fisher and John T. McGreevy, another historian of religion, have regarded Vietnam as an episode in Catholic assimilation. Catholic politicians and intellectuals self-consciously associated their religion with the antiCommunist cause as a way to overcome pervasive suspicion of the Vaticans
6. Kai Bird, The Color of Truth (New York, 1998), 17879. 7. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie (New York, 1988), 174.

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fascist ties and totalitarian authority.8 Jacobs illustrates this point with a photograph of a Catholic Youth Organization chapter rallying in front of St. Patricks Cathedral in naval uniforms with American and Vatican ags ying. Dooley and Kennedy were both exemplars of a new breed of Catholic, able to juggle orthodoxy and pluralism. Jacobss narrative stops with the death of Dulles in 1959, leaving a wide space for a sequel, because in the 1960s the juggling became more complicated. How, one wonders, did considerations of religion gure into Kennedys decision to topple Diem? The escalation of the war fractured the assimilationist consensus within the Church. While Spellman and other leaders maintained the Cold War line, dissident Catholics, such as Fr. Daniel Berrigan and the Catholic magazine Ramparts, assumed prominent positions in the antiwar movement. In the 1960s, religion began to disappear from political discourse as a singular noun (the Catholics) and appear in adjectival forms (Christian conservative) that implied uid alignments in place of the institutional power the churches were once thought to have. No matter how many megachurches spring up in the red states, it is unlikely that the pendulum will swing all the way back. In this innovative and lucid treatment, Jacobs recaptures a moment when religion had an unusual and inuential hold on public life, and, tragically, on foreign affairs.

8. John T. McGreevy, Thinking on Ones Own: Catholicism in the American Intellectual Imagination, 19281960, Journal of American History 84, no. 1 ( June 1997): 97131.